November 3, 2020

Let's Talk Illustrators #160: Shaun Tan

I am beyond thrilled to share my interview with Australian author-illustrator Shaun Tan. Among other books we discuss Eric, a story that originally appeared in Shaun's 2008 autobiographical anthology Tales from Outer Suburbia. Check out our conversation below!

About the book: 
When a foreign exchange student comes to live with a typical suburban family, he brings with him a boundless sense of curiosity -- and a stream of unexpected questions (which his hosts are never quite sure how to answer). But when the moment comes to say good-bye, a beautiful surprise awaits, and a gift the family will never forget.

Let's talk Shaun Tan!

LTPB: Let’s start by talking about Eric, which published as a separate edition 10 years ago in Australia! Where did the idea for this story come from? 

ST: A few different unrelated ideas converging in a sketchbook, as they tend to do. The main one was a simple pen doodle the size of a fingernail, of a leaf-headed character with a suitcase, and the word ‘Eric’ written underneath, which I felt was an onomatopoeic name for this figure. Later we had the experience of a Finnish friend staying with us in Western Australia, a very nice and polite guy who said very little, mostly yes and no, so it was hard to gauge his level of enthusiasm, which can be a source of some anxiety if you’re a host. He had come a long way and we weren’t always certain if our outings were enjoyable for him, or possibly tedious. Much later we learned that he had a fantastic time, a major life experience, but we just had no idea as it was unfolding, because of the minimal communication. I myself tend to be introverted, so I understand this; feelings and their expression do not always align. 

So that was the basic nut of the story. I’ve also known friends to host exchange students, and we had a Brazilian student named Luciano staying with us a little while, and my wife was also an exchange student (from Finland to Australia) in her youth. So I have always thought this would be an interesting subject for fiction. The other key influence is a small budgie (what you might call a parakeet in the US) called Eddie, who was very tame and like a little man in a smart blue vest that followed you around the house. So the story of Eric is essentially a conjunction of three real life experiences: our Finnish visitor, exchange student stories and our pet budgie. The little garden at the end was inspired by crystal gardens my older brother used to grow in an aquarium in his bedroom when we were kids.

LTPB: I must admit, I’ve been following your career for a long time and I purchased Eric from Australia when it was originally published. Though many of the differences between the Australian and US editions are subtle, there are a few notable ones, so can you share what it’s like to adapt a book for a different market? How involved are you in approving design choices?

ST: That typographic detail is actually by my wife who is a terrific graphic designer, among other vocations, and almost all the rest of the book is designed my me, so I have quite a bit of control over the details. Why are there variations? All sorts of reasons, in fact I think I’ve reformatted this same story three times, which simply reflects one aspect of book design, that there is no ‘right’ format, but many possible ones. Much of this is a discussion between myself and the publisher, incorporating issues of page count, marketing input and so on. The very small size of Eric published in 2010, for instance, was not my idea at all, but came entirely from the publisher, and given the reduction meant multiple pictures on a page would be simply too small to see properly. I was left to figure it out, as a visual engineer. At the end of the day, most design decisions are responses to practical problems I think, rather than artistic flourishes. Or rather, artistic style comes as a byproduct of solving a quiet practical problem. I think that’s true of most artistic processes actually. First and foremost, it’s work.

LTPB: Your books tend to touch on mature subjects, yet come in formats designed for younger audiences. Do you create your stories with an audience in mind? Have you ever gotten pushback from publishers?

ST: The short answer is that I don’t really think about audiences, only just whether the book looks right or not. So in that sense, the primary audience is myself, based on all experiences of looking at books, words and pictures, and host of other media. I don’t really come from a children’s literature background, but rather a fusion of naturalistic painting and science fiction illustration. To me a book is a small portable exhibition of words and pictures, that’s all. Thinking that way certainly helps free me up, and I guess, stumble upon original ideas or ways of doing things. Often I think, ‘Why isn’t there a book like this for adults,’ or ‘wouldn’t some of these painting techniques be interesting for children also?’ For example, books like The Arrival and The Red Tree came from simply wanting to see a book like that, which I hadn’t really seen before, but thought I would not be alone in finding interesting. I just like the idea of creating books for as broad a readership as possible, and so that means including younger readers.

Have I gotten pushback? Yes, children’s literature is quite a conservative field for the most part, but it’s also a bit wild and freewheeling, so that balances it out. I think picture books are perhaps the most diverse of any literary genre, the most inclusive, the most experimental (I’m not sure if that’s true, but just putting a conjecture out there for any literary critics to consider.) I’m actually surprised I’ve received as little resistance as one might expect, especially on books dealing with dark themes. Cicada, for instance, touches slightly on the subject of suicide, quite a taboo for picture books, but was still broadly embraced internationally. I think it’s also helped that I’ve been able to talk through my ideas with publishers, and answer any concerns they have in an empathetic way. That is, I’ve also not been one to push back in a hard way. Publishing a book is a collective and commercial concern, not simply an act of the author’s self-expression. 

I’d add that one good thing about picture books is that they do have time to grow an audience, beginning with small initial print runs. A book like The Red Tree, essentially about depression, faced a bit of resistance when initially published, but it now considered a classic and sells better than ever. It did take many years, though, for that to happen. I’ve been very lucky in that time to have specific editors with faith in my work who have allowed me to be fairly experimental and kept my work in print. That’s been a critical factor.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in Eric? How has your illustration technique changed over the years? 

ST: The illustrations are in pencil, graphite and coloured, and that’s a technique that has not changed much for me since I was a kid, only become a little more refined. One big difference now from when I started is that a lot of my pre-production sketches are composited digitally, so I can test ideas roughly by scaling things up and down, cutting and pasting in photoshop, basically an equivalent of what I started out doing with scissors, tape and a photocopier. That’s made the process much quicker. But really, I’m pretty old school and still use the same drawing kit and paint box I would have been using when I was 15, and started getting into painting and drawing seriously. I render every final image by hand. I feel that gives it a liveliness that I can’t quite acquire when working purely digitally.

LTPB: Are you working on anything now?

ST: Not so much. The lockdown here in Melbourne has slowed things down considerably, mainly limiting studio hours, already tricky with a young family. Much of this year has been looking into possible adaptations of The Arrival and Tales from Outer Suburbia for film and television pitches. Those are interesting projects, highly collaborative, and also naturally uncertain. But I think they would be good if they succeed, the teams involved are very talented people. Alas, far too early to have anything to show, as is true of other book projects I’m hoping to get around to eventually.

LTPB: If you got the chance to write your own picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

ST: Ha, very interesting question! Well of course I would want to illustrate it myself, but if not me, I’m not sure. The first name that comes to mind for some reason is Arnold Lobel, perhaps because I enjoyed his illustrations when I was young, they have an interesting mix of old and new, charming and creepy (I mostly liked ‘The Headless Horseman Rides Tonight’, poems by Jack Prelutsky). Another illustrator that comes to mind is the Italian artist Lorenzo Mattotti, whose illustrations have a powerful and visceral energy to them. I have no idea how he would approach such a thing, which I why I’d consider him such an interesting candidate! A third possibility as an intuitive choice is the painter Richard Diebenkorn, known for abstract Californian landscapes. Not an illustrator as such, but I recognise much in that west coast light and colour of my childhood experiences growing up in Western Australia. Light is the thing that interests me the most in painting, it defines everything, but particularly a subconscious feeling behind any scene or visual story, one we aren’t always aware of. Sometimes the particulars of an illustration don’t matter so much, as long as the light and atmosphere is right – it carries far more narrative weight than most of us realise.

A million, billion, trillion thanks to Shaun for taking time to talk to me! Eric published last month from Scholastic Press!

Special thanks to Shaun and Scholastic for use of these images!

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  1. I love hearing where artists get their inspiration! I remember those crystal gardens, too...thinking about them brought back happy memories. Thanks for interviewing Shaun Tan and introducing me to ERIC - I'm eager to check it out.

  2. I'm so excited to have introduced you to it Janet! It's one of my absolute favorites!

  3. Such interesting answers from the world's greatest illustrator!